Saturday, 13 April 2024

Libel case against newspaper, letter writer heard Thursday

THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN CORRECTED AND CLARIFIED REGARDING THE CHARGES IN THE SUIT, A QUOTE BY THE RECORD-BEE PUBLISHER AND WHERE A LETTER THAT HAD CONCERNED THE COURT WAS PUBLISHED.


LAKEPORT – On Thursday the Lake County Record-Bee made its second trip to court in two weeks' time to defend itself against a libel and defamation suit.


Former Clear Lake Riviera Community Association Board members Sid Donnell, Alan Siegel and Sandra Orchid each sued the newspaper for $7,500 “for defamation of character for libelous publication of false charges against each of the plaintiffs” in the paper's June 20 edition.


In court they argued that the paper's coverage of the association was lopsided and unethical. They said the paper printed dozens of letters – many of which accused them of illegal activity – and failed to fact-check them, while at the same time not agreeing to print a rebuttal from Donnell.


Named as a co-defendant with the newspaper was Clear Lake Riviera resident Darrell Watkins, who had written some of the letters in question, particularly a June guest commentary that accused the association board of, among other things, breaking “nearly every law on the books.”


The case, brought in small claims court, was heard Thursday morning in Judge Vincent Lechowick's courtroom.


Shortly after Lechowick called the case he questioned Watkins about a letter he had written that was published earlier this week by Lake County News.


The court clerk had circulated to the bailiffs and the court a copy of the letter, which described freedom of speech defenses in terms of metaphorical gunfire and bullets being aimed at the plaintiffs. An extra deputy had been called to the court before the session due to the clerk's concerns.


Lechowick, nodding to his two bailiffs, said he had fire power himself. “Is it a threat to the court or a physical threat?” the judge asked Watkins, adding that it “wasn't very wise” to make such statements.


Watkins objected and said the judge's comments were prejudicial.


Record-Bee Publisher Gary Dickson, standing at the defendant's table with Watkins, affirmed that the paper had printed the guest commentary that was at the heart of the complaint filed by Donnell, Siegel and Orchid.


Initially, Donnell said he sent a letter to Dickson with their response to Watkins' letter, as well as a request that the newspaper investigate the facts for themselves to see if the association was guilty of wrongdoing.


Dickson acknowledged receiving the letter and said he had agreed to print the rebuttal. “That offer stood until we were served.”


The initial letter, which Siegel came well before the lawsuit service, wasn't published. Siegel said the paper had said the letter was fine with some minor editing, but it didn't make print. After that, when the paper received its notice of being sued, Dickson said he contacted a corporate attorney who advised against printing it altogether.


Lechowick asked why Dickson printed Watkins' letter without “calling your legal beagles,” yet refused to print the other side. Why, Lechowick asked, was that OK?


Dickson said the corporate attorney said printing Donnell's letter at that point was not in the newspaper's best interests.


Lechowick shook his head and frowned. “Good legal advice might have been to print it,” he said.


As to the substance of Watkins' letter, the judge remarked, “I'm not clear that it's libel per se.”


“Mr. Watkins borders on accusing you of a crime,” said Lechowick, adding that he wasn't sure Watkins had actually done so, hyperbole aside.


Lechowick questioned the three plaintiffs about what damages they had suffered.


Siegel, named a California Teacher of the Year in 2005, said he is a part of a large and prestigious education committee, and had previously received many offers to participate in other such groups. After the barrage of letters, he said those professional offers stopped. He also was introduced over the summer to a cousin he had never met who had read the letters and coverage and told him he was a “bad man.”


“Our view is that the Record-Bee created this situation,” Siegel said.


In addition, on the Record-Bee's online comment boards, run by Topix.net, Siegel said they received death threats and that when they asked the paper to do something about the comments they had refused.


“They consistently deny any responsibility,” said Siegel, adding that the association employees have called the sheriff's office due to issues of harassment.


He described how the newspaper wrote a story when three unhappy property owners – of a total of about 2,800 – were standing outside of the association office with signs earlier this year, protesting board actions.


Siegel said Record-Bee reporter Tiffany Revelle called him to say they were doing a story and that it didn't look positive for the association. Siegel asked her to give him her word that she would attend the next association meeting to see the situation for herself.


Revelle never showed up, he said, and months later when she approached him for another article Siegel confronted her about breaking her promise. He said she apologized at that point and said her managing editor, Rick Kennedy, wouldn't let her attend. During the same period, the paper published another 20 or so letters about the association, according to Siegel.


For his part, Donnell said he suffered damage to his reputation as well as embarrassment, and can no longer serve as a volunteer in his community because of it. Orchid said much the same, noting that in her job at the Lakeport Regional Chamber of Commerce she's been approached by numerous community members asking her why she is breaking the law.


In publishing the letters, Dickson said the Record-Bee did nothing more than newspapers have done in this country for centuries, and in doing so provided an open forum that is protected by the US Constitution's First Amendment.


Losing the case, said Dickson, could have a detrimental effect on the paper, to the point of forcing it to cease printing letters to the editor if there's a danger that they could end up in court repeatedly.


On Oct. 24, a libel suit filed against the Record-Bee by Dr. Camille Keene was dismissed in Lake County Superior Court with the help of a motion used to fight strategic lawsuits against public participation – or SLAPP suits, as Lake County News has reported.


However, Dickson said that the anti-SLAPP protection only was offered in superior court, not small claims court.


Nevertheless, he argued that Watkins' letter was protected opinion and received additional protections under the doctrine of “substantial truth.” The newspaper had no reason to believe the letter's contents were untrue and so printed it. Dickson added that the newspaper employed no malice in doing so.


“We were only conducting business as usual,” said Dickson.


Arguing in his own defense, Watkins presented evidence to back up his assertions that the homeowners association had broken numerous laws.


He called as a witness Ozella Mitchell who testified that she had been hit by large fines of $250 a month by the association for not cutting brush on her property. Mitchell, who eventually cleared her property, said the association was at the point of “terrorizing” her over the issue.


Watkins said state law prevents homeowners associations from collecting fines in this way, and added that the association's own covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) don't allow for fining and lack a fining schedule. He provided copies of the CC&Rs to emphasize his point.


Siegel responded that the association has been assessing fines for 30 years.


Watkins also brought up the issue of the association allegedly paying its secretary as an independent contractor rather than a regular employee. Lechowick said that's a case of tax avoidance, not evasion, which isn't illegal.


Next, Watkins called as a witness John Stoddard who – like Mitchell – had been fined by the association over brush on his property. The fines eventually totaled more than $20,000. State law, Watkins alleged, said such fines must be reasonable.


“If they break California law then they're operating illegally, that's my opinion,” said Watkins.


Watkins said the association's new bylaws also haven't been accepted by the necessary vote of homeowners, which Donnell called an “allegation.”


The association's bylaws specify term limits, said Watkins. He accused Donnell and Siegel of breaking the bylaws by continuing to serve past the end of their terms.


Donnell replied that Watkins didn't quote the entire bylaw section about term limits, and explained a director's term ends when successors are elected and qualified.


Siegel had gone off the board in June 2006 and was reappointed to fill a vacancy in October 2006; Donnell was appointed to an empty seat in January 2006. Both men were reappointed by the board in June 2007, which they said was due to lack of participation. Siegel said in court that the association board approached him for the vacancy, not the other way around.


Returning to the issue of Donnell's rebuttal, Lechowick asked Dickson, “By not printing that letter, doesn't that imply some sort of malice?”


He then asked Donnell, “One-sided reporting doesn't give rise to libel claims, does it?”


“They (the Record-Bee) showed absolutely no interest in determining the truth of Mr. Watkins' allegations,” said Donnell. By not investigating Watkins' claims the paper showed “reckless disregard for the truth,” Donnell added.


Siegel said that while they were was trying to get the newspaper to publish Donnell's rebuttal letter, the paper went ahead and published several more letters criticizing the association. “The Bee has pushed a non-issue to create controversy and sell newspapers.”


The result has been angry people bothering association employees and concerns for the former board members' safety, said Siegel. One new board member already has resigned due to the situation, he said.


Watkins wanted to call Tony Gniadek, a recently elected board member, to discuss term limits for board members, but Lechowick wouldn't hear the testimony, not deeming it relevant.


Then, Watkins called Revelle forward to question her about whether or not Siegel had tried to pressure her regarding covering the story. Revelle promptly invoked her rights under the California Shield Law and refused to discuss her interaction with Siegel.


Watkins then called Kennedy, who said the paper printed a total of 47 letters and guest commentaries about the association, about a third or more were from Watkins and others critical of the group.


Siegel asked Kennedy if he had told Revelle not to go to the association meeting she had promised to attend. Kennedy said he might have.


When pressed by Siegel about Revelle having made the promise to attend, Kennedy said, “Reporters should not be making promises in the field.” He added that Revelle had not mentioned to him that she had promised to go to the meeting.


Kennedy said that, anytime between January and June of this year, when the debate was raging, Siegel or his co-defendants could have chosen to write a letter. But they asserted their rebuttal was in answer to Watkins' June letter.


Turning to Kennedy, Lechowick again asked why they didn't publish the rebuttal on the advice of an attorney when they had published so many letters without such advice. He didn't get an answer.


Siegel asked Kennedy about the paper's policy of only allowing a letter writer two letters per month. Kennedy said that hasn't been a policy under his leadership. (It should be noted that such a policy was in force at the newspaper for many years prior to Kennedy's becoming editor.)


Lechowick asked Dickson if the newspaper would publish Donnell's rebuttal letter.


“I don't see any reason why we shouldn't,” Dickson replied.


At that point, after more than two hours of discussion, Lechowick announced that he would take the case under submission and mail decisions to the parties.


On Friday, Dickson told Lake County News that the newspaper now intended to publish the rebuttal it had previously refused to print by Donnell.


“It will be sometime early to mid next week,” he said.

 

However, Donnell has since withdrawn his request that it be printed.


Whatever the outcome of this case, there appear to be more legal troubles ahead for the association.


On Oct. 20, Stoddard filed suit against the association and its current board, along with Siegel, Donnell, Orchid, past board member Boone Bridges and Does 1-100. He's seeking injunctive relief and alleges several legal violations against the association.


At one point, Watkins had attempted to submit a copy of the lawsuit into the record, but Lechowick refused to accept it, saying that anyone can make any allegations in a suit, and it was no proof of wrongdoing.


Before their court appearance on Thursday, Donnell, Siegel and Orchid were served with the new suit. No date for a hearing has yet been set.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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